By Tommy Keeler Jr.
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County fought back from a slow start against William Monroe on Wednesday night, but it wasn't enough.
The Dragons made key baskets when they needed them and held off the Wildcats for a 48-34 boys basketball victory in the Conference 28 semifinals.
"The slow start killed us, and then we had to spend so much energy trying to get back into it," Warren County coach Vernon Mathews said. "We cut it to four, and then they started hitting their free throws. We just couldn't do enough."
It was the third meeting between the two teams this season, and the Dragons won all three.
William Monroe blitzed the Wildcats in the first period, taking a 14-2 lead. The Wildcats had five turnovers in the first six minutes, and missed five of their first six shots.
Austin Batten, Keegan Wolford and Anthony Terry each hit a 3-pointer to jump start the Dragons' offense.
"The last thing I said [in the locker room] was go out and have fun, don't put too much pressure on yourself," Warren County senior Blake Steele said. "Go play the game of basketball, play the game you love. I think when we first came out, just like the first game against them, we weren't closing out on those 3-point shots and that showed.
"We came out really jittery and flat. We just didn't match their focus and feel for the game at the beginning."
The two teams stayed even throughout the second period, and the Dragons led 22-11 at the half.
Warren County started to use full-court traps to cause some turnovers and get back in the game in the third period.
A 7-2 run helped the Wildcats cut the lead to 29-21 on a layup by Jontae Rollins with 3:11 left in the third period.
Batten answered with a 3-pointer. Warren County's Casey Stewart hit a jumper, but William Monroe's Jeffrey Early converted a conventional three-point play to push the lead to 35-23 with 2:30 left in the third period.
The Wildcats made another big run in the fourth period. A 10-2 run that spanned the third and fourth periods, helped cut the lead to 37-33 with 4:05 left in the game.
Kris Deal hit a 3-pointer, and Steele had five points during the spurt.
"I'm just so proud of this group of kids, not quitting and coming back like that to [within] four," Mathews said. "We just ran out of time, basically. I'm not sure we were running out of energy. We were getting tired, but the other team was tired, too."
Two free throws by Darion McKinnie and one by Woolford stretched the lead to seven with 1:49 left.
William Monroe made seven of eight free throws in the last 1:14 to seal the game.
William Monroe coach Mike Maynard said he thought a key to the game was the defense of Satchel Knight and Mark Williamson on the 6-foot-6 Steele.
"Blake is so hard to guard," Maynard said. "Satchell Knight and Mark Williamson, they took turns, and big Mark got us some big buckets there in the first half that really helped us. If we get play like that in the post, along with Jeffrey [Early] we're a pretty good team."
The Wildcats held 6-foot-4 Early to 14 points, mostly on free throws. Batten added 10 points for the Dragons. Early had 11 rebounds.
The Dragons, who advanced to the Group A, Division 2 state semifinals last year, play at Loudoun Valley on Friday in the Conference 28 final.
"Valley they got a D-1 player, it's going to be very difficult," Maynard said. "We're just happy to get a couple more games. You never know where it will take us.
"We live for another day, and we just got to go out play another good game of basketball."
Steele had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Stewart had 12 points for the Wildcats.
Warren County's season comes to an end, but with its 18-5 record it will be one to remember for a long time.
"It's crazy -- 18-5 -- that's a good senior year. I couldn't ask for a better way to go out," Steele said. "Three of [our losses were] to William Monroe. It's crazy. We're two good teams. Every time we meet you're going to be attending a good game.
"I couldn't ask for a better senior year. It was one heck of a ride. I'd go back and do it again any day."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd